My dad would give me a quarter each week for spending money when I was about five years old. If I asked for more, he always answered, “get a job and earn it!”
It was mega-hot in the summertime down in the San Joaquin Valley , but one of the coolest places in town was the movie show. Fifteen cents for a ticket at the door and a dime for popcorn. That’s where I saw Hop-a-long Cassidy, Roy Rogers and others as they roped and rode horses across the west shooting at bad guys. But the first real cowboy I met was at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, while in the army training with an infantry platoon for the Vietnam war.
Fred Miller was in the machine gun squad with me and five other guys. He had a way about him that was a little different than the rest of us. He always spoke just what was on his mind in that “get to the point” cowboy way.
He was about four years older than most of us and earned the nickname “Gramps.” The story he told was that he’d had a run-in with the local banker in his home town who was on the draft board. Seemed like the next thing he knew he was headed for boot camp, even though he ran the family ranch with his widowed mom and shouldn’t have been drafted.
We ended up in the rice paddies and the jungle mountains of Vietnam together, hunting for the enemy. Fred had eyes like a hawk and could spot “Charlie” a thousand yards away on a jungle-covered hill. He started carrying a little rope and was constantly lassoing people and other things. You could always count on Fred to stay awake on the long, wet, all-night ambushes we had to pull after hunting Charlie all day. He did get antsy though, when we were penned down by snipers in the shallow rice paddy water and the leeches were sizing us up.
“Gall-dern it,” he would mutter, “I’m gittin’ up to see if I can spot that sucker!”
Fred considered it his duty to always “pick up after me” when we were on patrol and it seemed like he was always whittling on something with the super-sharp Buck knife I’d had sent to me from home.
Somehow Fred finagled about three leaves to go home and check on his elderly mother who was trying to keep the cattle ranch going while he was off hunting Charlie with us. I didn’t know until years after I got home from the war, but Fred had made it a point to take some of his leave time and stop off in Northern California to see my folks and ensure my mother that I was alright. He really was looking after me.
After the war was over, every now and then I’d go see Fred at his ranch just outside Paradise Valley, Nevada. One time his alfalfa fields were being overrun by hordes of jackrabbits and he and I spent hours together in the middle of the night trying to save his crop with .22 rifles.
Fred married Gay Lynn when he was in his mid-forties and they’ve had some great times together. She added something really special to Fred’s life, and always made our family feel welcome.
In 2002 I took my whole family to Fred and Gay Lynn’s and he took my granddaughter for her first horseback ride. She was just a few months old. My son and son-in-law got to share in the work during calf-branding that spring, which was a pretty big deal for those guys. It was just like being in the movie “City-slickers.”
One winter a few years ago, Fred called and asked if I’d come help him feed the cows. When I got to the ranch he told me he had fallen off the hay wagon and it ran over him while the unmanned tractor was pulling the wagon across the cattle yard. He said the tractor had made a full circle and was about to run over him again when he came-to and just made it out of the way.
I loved going to see Fred. He called me to come see him a while back and it turned out he just needed someone he could talk heart-to-heart with about the war after all these years.
Fred had a stroke a while back and never quite got over it. Then here last night I got the word that Fred had just passed away after heart failure.
Well, Cowboy Fred, you made my life richer and I’m going to miss you!
– January 2013